Enacting the Pandemic: Analyzing Agency, Opacity, and Power in Algorithmic Assemblages
Journal article, 2021
This article has two objectives: First, the article seeks to make a methodological intervention in the social study of algorithms. Second, the article traces ethnographically how an algorithm was used to enact a pandemic, and how the power to construct this disease outbreak was moved around through an algorithmic assemblage. The article argues that there is a worrying trend to analytically reduce algorithms to coherent and stable objects whose computational logic can be audited for biases to create fairness, accountability, and transparency (FAccT). To counter this reductionist and determinist tendency, the article proposes three methodological rules that allows an analysis of algorithmic power in practice. Empirically, the article traces the assembling of a recent epidemic at the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention-the Zika outbreak starting in 2015-and shows how an epidemic was put together using an array of computational resources, with very different spaces for intervening. A key argument is that we, as analysts of algorithms, need to attend to how multiple spaces for agency, opacity, and power open and close in different parts of algorithmic assemblages. The crux of the matter is that actors experience different degrees of agency and opacity in different parts of any algorithmic assemblage. Consequently, rather than auditing algorithms for biased logic, the article shows the usefulness of examining algorithmic power as enacted and situated in practice.